Action Replay – Try and Try Again

Rugby union has nothing like the global spread or financial clout of football. But the recent Rugby World Cup had twenty countries competing in the finals (including from South America and Oceania) and a further twenty-six in the qualifying matches, with a total TV audience claimed to be near one billion.

Some games were rather one-sided, but in others Tier 2 nations, as they are known, fared pretty well against the top teams. Samoa came close to beating England, and Fiji were indeed victorious against Australia. Rugby is spreading internationally, and union is the most popular sport in Fiji. However, Tier 2 nations claim not to get enough games against Tier 1 sides, which is what they need if they are to make notable improvements.

In many countries, though, the sport is encountering difficulties. Australia did badly at the World Cup, not qualifying for the last eight for the first time. Union is well down the list as a spectator sport there, with Australian Rules Football the most popular, and rugby league, soccer and cricket all out-ranking union. Of these, only cricket is in the top ten for participant sports.

In England, too, union is facing problems. The top league, the Premiership, recently lost three of its thirteen clubs. London Irish, Wasps and Worcester have gone into administration and may go out of business altogether. Wasps had moved from London to Coventry in 2014, but this did not solve their financial problems, and they are now exploring a possible move to Kent. One estimate is that Premiership clubs in all have debts of over half a billion pounds. The loss of income caused by Covid did not help, but essentially the problem is that, since going professional in 1995, English clubs’ costs have greatly exceeded their revenue. Relying on wealthy benefactors may work for a while, but it is not a long-term solution.

In Wales, the structures for school and youth rugby have been re-organised, but that resulted in fewer and less competitive teams and fixtures. Many of the more promising players have moved to England to train and play, which in turn further weakens the domestic system.

The 2027 World Cup finals will be expanded to twenty-four teams, giving more opportunity to the lower-ranked nations. But it remains to be seen how much difference this will make to both the international game and domestically in countries where it’s struggling.


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